Leave your cell phone behind, remove your purse or backpack, put away any loose items in your hands. You won’t need them. In fact, they’re not allowed. Soon you’ll climb several flights of stairs and step out 40 feet above the ground. You will spend the next 8 minutes lying across a web made from wire mesh, which will pulse and vibrate.
No, this is not a strange dream or scientific experiment. It is part of the latest exhibit at The Shed, Tomás Saraceno’s “Particular Matter(s).” The centerpiece of this survey – Saraceno’s largest US exhibition to-date – is Free the Air: How to hear the universe in a spider/web, a “sensory experience” and “concert of vibrations” that simulates the sensations of a spider weaving its web. As you settle into your space beneath a sweeping white dome, the lights – so bright at first, you have to squint – dim and leave total darkness. Noises echo throughout the cavernous space, soft pops and low rumblings that are actually amplified recordings of spiders’ vibratory communications and the movements of particles through air.
Only 45 people are admitted at a time, and visitors have the choice of an upper level at 40 feet or a lower level, which sits 12 feet above the ground.The experience is reminiscent of a sensory deprivation chamber or even womb yoga. It has a meditative element that relaxes the body and encourages reflection. Is this how it would feel to be a spider? Or prey caught in its web?
Saraceno is focused on questions of environment and atmosphere. He is fascinated by interspecies communication and finding ways for humans to re-engage with our environments through the lens of ecology. So the question is not: How would it feel to be as small as a spider? But actually: What is it like to be this in tune to one’s environment? How would things differ if we were conscious of every pulse of air, every particle, every drumbeat of movement? Or, most crucially, how can we become more attuned to our environment? After all, spiders have survived a lot longer than humans. Maybe we should pay better attention.
The web motif continues throughout the rest of the exhibit, which is spread across The Shed’s Level 2 and Level 4 galleries. The survey demonstrates the breadth of Saraceno’s work, underscoring that he is as much an artist as he is a scientist, a man who has led lectures at the Pompidou and held residencies at MIT. He explores spiders and their webs in various manifestations; some made from mesh wire or outlined by lasers, others suspended in glass tanks that hang from the ceiling. These multiple forms point to a multi-layered meaning: the web of life, a food web, complex patterns, and more.
As with Free the Air, much of Saraceno’s focus is on the unseen. He implores us to regard the imperceptible. Quite literally, this is done in “Particular Matter(s),” a work from 2021 that gave the exhibition its title. In a pitch-black room, a beam of light illuminates dust particles that float in the air. Some of this matter is dust and some is PM 2.5 particulate matter, a pollutant that poses great health risks. Free the Air, the title of the sensory experience, is a reference to freeing the air from particulate matter, which can be done through reducing carbon emissions and eliminating fossil fuels.
Saraceno has ideas about this, too, and they have culminated in Museo Aero Solar, also on view at The Shed. This piece, an ever-growing sculpture made from thousands of plastic bags, floats in the air without burning fossil fuels. The bags have been sourced from more than 30 countries, the logos of big-name brands strung together to make something new, bits of waste repurposed. It is a testament to the power of reclamation and reinvention. It is also a lot of fun to walk through.
At times, the exhibition can feel slightly disjointed and draining. The gallery spaces, some nearly pitch black, are disorienting, and many of the objects on display are closer to scientific specimens than works of art. This is an exhibition that requires focus and introspection, more of a full-body experience than a passive viewing. It is, quite refreshingly, not Instagram eye candy. For Saraceno, this is the point. Because how can we rethink our relationship to the earth with our faces in our phones?
As a venue, The Shed is uniquely suited to an installation of this magnitude. Free the Air stretches 95 feet in diameter and is held in The McCourt, a vast space that is formed when the building’s movable outer shell extends across the adjacent plaza. The exhibit as a whole is spread across nearly 25,000 square feet. The sheer scale alone is impressive, not to mention the experience itself. It’s an exhibit that shows what The Shed does better than any other venue in the city: the innovative and unexpected.
It is also an exhibit that calls into question what art is. Saraceno is using plastic bags and spider webs in a survey for a major New York City cultural institution (Duchamp would be proud). If you deliberately light and display a spider web, it is elevated into something of beauty, no longer a nuisance dwelling in the corners of our homes. How many of us will think twice about swatting spiders or sweeping webs away after a visit to The Shed?
The coalescence of these small adjustments in thought is what instills Saraceno’s work with a sense of hope. If plastic bags – a longtime centerpiece of the environmental discussion and a vehicle of capitalistic branding – can be transformed, if spider webs can become art, if we can rethink – even in small ways – our approach to our environments, perhaps there is hope for the future after all.
“Particular Matter(s)” is on view at The Shed through April 17.